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Forgiveness

[ Fiction ]

Forgiveness

By Jim Grimsley

In the satirical vein of writers such as George Saunders, Terry Southern, and Brett Easton Ellis, Jim Grimsley tells a darkly comical story about a man wiped out in the crash of Enron whose life is primed to become a made-for-TV movie.

James A. Michener Fiction Series,
Not for sale in British Commonwealth, except Canada

2007

"The Lifetime movie of my divorce and crime spree will be entitled Breakdown at Midnight.... Sympathy for my character will be established by my loss of a wildly respectable, lucrative job with Arthur Andersen, a company which turned out to be as crooked as its customers. I will be another orphan of the American Dream gone sour, and eventually I will give in to the so-called dark side of my nature when I strangle Carmine with the strap of her Prada bag, or stab her to death with a survivalist-quality knife, or bludgeon her skull to a bloody pulp with a classic Tiffany lamp; this part of the script will have to wait for the real event to unfold since, though I've decided that tomorrow will be the day I kill her, I have yet to choose how."

—Charley Stranger

Turning headline news into biting social satire, Jim Grimsley exposes the amorality of materialistic America in Forgiveness, a blackly comic tale of a bankrupt accounting executive who dreams of achieving stardom in the only way a pathetic failure can—by murdering his wife. As Charley Stranger imagines the crime, he fantasizes wildly unlikely encounters with celebrities—sharing marital woes with Nicole Kidman over a latte at Starbucks, being interviewed by Barbara Walters—while in real life his wife Carmine incessantly ridicules his inability to perform either in bed or in the marketplace. As Forgiveness veers to its shocking conclusion, it strips bare the corruption of the American Dream—the moral bankruptcy of corporate and political institutions, the hollowness of living in a media-saturated world, the delusion of buying love with luxury goods.

  • My Lifetime Movie Begins
  • An Ordinary Person, Much Like Yourself
  • You Always Kill the One You Love
  • Not the Thing Itself but the Appearance of the Thing
  • The Last Days of the Golden Age
  • Purchase
  • Forty Whacks
  • In Black and White
  • At Last My Exclusive Interview!
  • Frankly
  • It's These Geese Again
  • Movie Nature: A Flashback
  • Child Abuse
  • Chances Are My Chances Are
  • Epilogue

Today I saw an SUV drive up the side of a building, climbing to the very top where a helicopter was landing. This was a TV commercial, of course, but looked completely real. A man stepped out of the SUV and kissed his wife good-bye. She sat, relaxed, her hair ruffled by the helicopter, behind the steering wheel. She had a beautiful face, sandy hair, but beyond that I could see only her shoulders and the shapes of her breasts under her blue cotton blouse. She had a pretty smile. Her husband climbed into the helicopter and she drove down the side of the building. I believe she was driving on a skyscraper somewhere in Manhattan. The woman smiled like a perfect wife. My own wife wants a divorce. I have decided to kill her, but I'm not sure how.

She has long ago ceased to be beautiful, my wife, and I could only be described as handsome in my dreams. The woman in the SUV is lit perfectly as she steers the vehicle away from the helicopter and heads over the side of the skyscraper. Behind her head, clouds are passing blithely over the Manhattan skyline, the clouds shaped in oddly sexual contours, fleecy, bouncy, and white as my laundry when I add the proper additives and use the most expensive front-loading washer. This wife has perfect, glistening lips and glossy, even teeth. I hardly remember what the husband looks like from the front, though his rear-end clenches, first one side, then the other, as he climbs into the helicopter. My backside no longer has any clench to speak of, and I would be wise to answer the next penis enlargement advertisement that enters unbidden into my email inbox. I may hire a personal trainer, perhaps Jake himself. After my crime spree I expect my personal ratings to soar, in terms of attention, and I want to be camera-shiny.

For instance, Katie Couric will ignore my divorce but when I murder my wife in some spectacular fashion, Katie will have me on the Today show or Dateline. I prefer Katie Couric and Barbara Walters to all the rest. Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America is a pretty close third. As for Jane Pauley, I hold her in too much awe, I would be tongue-tied in her presence. When I found out she was bipolar I went to bed for a week. Anyway, for the interview, Katie and I will walk along a path in the autumn woods, the same path as when she interviewed pixie-pretty little Elizabeth Smart, fresh home from her abduction. Leaves will drift down in various colors through the clear, beautiful day, me in a comfortable cardigan, something between blue and gray, a soft tone that won't compete with the rich colors of the leaves or the bright blue of the sky. Katie will ask, same as she asked Elizabeth, "Did this change your life?"

"Yes," I'll say. "I'm sorry my wife had to die, but the house is quieter. I sleep better with both sides of the bed set to my personal sleep number. And I don't have to worry about whether she will share her box of Cheez-Its with me." By then I will have many sponsors, I will need to use my opportunities to do aggressive product placement, but I'll have a team of assistants, like a hip-hop star; I'll have an entourage, including armed bodyguards, though none of them will be visible in the edited interview as it is broadcast, first in abbreviated fashion during the seven a.m. segment of Today and later, the full twenty minute version on Dateline, the Sunday night edition, when most people are at home.

"Are you ever sorry for what you did?" she'll ask.

I won't know how to answer. I'll gaze thoughtfully into the drifting leaves, pensive, moody, lit through gauze.

Our cars can do the most wonderful things. Driving up a building is only the beginning. Our vehicles gleam, soar down lonely roads between verdant fields, hug the curve of a mountain as tightly as a lover, plow through streams of water, conquer boulders, park on the sides of cliffs, appear in the vast icy wasteland of the arctic; our cars are superheroes in the making, with driver-side airbags, passenger airbags, side curtain airbags, anti-lock braking systems, lo-jack anti-theft protection, satellite positioning, moonroofs; my wife wants a new Mercedes SUV but I am out of work, our money nearly gone, and now she asks for a divorce. Is it because I can't buy her a new car or make love to her or both?

I have fallen in love with another woman, a slender part-Asian with thick eyebrows who wears her hair pulled back in a ponytail, loose and supple; I've never met her but I've seen her on television, on a commercial, marvelously lit, including the elegant floor lighting that made shows like X Files so remarkable, floods of light pouring towards her from all directions. In the commercial she has a Caucasian husband in a white shirt and tie with a pen in his pocket. His tie is striped on a slant rising from the left to right as I view him, and including four colors of stripe: black, grey, mauve, and turquoise. The first time I saw the commercial I thought it was for the car but later I realized it was a cell phone commercial. The Asian woman was sitting in an SUV beside her handsome husband, but what she was trying to sell me was her silence, rather than the SUV. Her husband was better looking than me but he could have been me if I still worked out. She was sitting beside him looking away, into the distance, into the clouds, silent. She and her husband have been arguing, and she and I have that in common, that we have been arguing with our spouses. Later this couple makes up by sending text messages over their cell phones when they are each in a meeting, another kind of silence; but at the moment in which I fell in love with her, she was angry with him, her mate, both of them still in the car, and he sat there puzzled but inert, looking with some confusion ahead, driving handsomely and safely forward, troubled about his relations with this attractive woman who could have been my woman, in that car that could have been my car.

"You're gay," says my wife, Lauren. She is of that generation in which nearly all the girls were named Lauren, sometimes spelled in variants like Lauryn, Laurin, Loran, or Lah Rynne. For this reason she now goes by her middle name, Carmine, which was her grandmother's name. She currently has brown hair and has always had brown eyes. Her skin is stretched by facelifts and deadened by Botox. Her chin is dimpled but still gives the impression of being pointed. No matter what kind of hair style she chooses, she has a bouncy look, which has grown more pronounced as she ages and becomes more ample.

"What are you talking about? I'm not gay. You just accused me of having an affair with a woman."

"You told me you were gay." She makes a gesture as if she is waving a cigarette at me, a Benson & Hedges, long and slim, the way she used to when she smoked. She quit smoking but kept the gesture. "When you were drunk. You told me you slept with my brother. Or he told me. That's another reason I want a divorce."

She makes up these stories because she knows I don't remember what happens when I'm drunk. Vodka is my drink these days. When we were in school together our liquor was tequila. In our early-to-middle married years I drank gin. But to accuse me of having sex with her brother, even drunk, is outrageous, as if anyone would sleep with bony Edgar with his ghoulish face. If I were gay, I still wouldn't sleep with her brother, but I'm not. I shake my head. "You know I'm not gay. Who would want your brother? He has bad breath."

I have a flash of myself killing her, vaguely, as if my hands would like to reach for her throat on their own; only vaguely, only the shadow of it, this first time, but I can feel how real it is. When she looks at me, she has no idea. She waves her hand at me. "You're a crook and a cheat and a slut," she says. "You would screw anything that would lay there for it."

We are standing in the breakfast area, what I once called a breakfast nook only to have Carmine give me her most withering look. It is a week now since she told me she wants a divorce. I am near the round greystone table scattered with opened jars of marmalade and Polaner All Fruit, half-eaten bagels and English muffins on white china plates, light falling from the bay window, or bow window, as Carmine prefers to call it. I am about to head to the local Starbucks to read the national edition of the New York Times; I prefer to read the newspaper at a coffee shop because it gives me more of a sense of having an occupation. We are long past the point where we pretend that I am leaving the house every morning on a diligent search for a new job. The only one likely to be looking for work in our house these days is Carmine, and her threats to launch her own imminent career as a something-or-other are a sure sign that our marriage is near its last gasp. She has not held a job since the first year we were married, a very long time ago. She's thinking she can sell clothes in the local Bloomingdales or Neiman Marcus, a wise choice, since she herself has spent a fortune at both stores and knows their merchandise thoroughly. So far, of course, even Carmine's hunt for employment is mostly theoretical.

Her eyes mist a bit, and she looks at me with a moment's softness, as she begins to clear the remains of her breakfast from the table. I am no longer allowed to take my meals with her, so none of this food waste is mine. "Charley," she says, "what happened to you? You were such a good man."

The question galls me; a more appropriate question might be, "What happened to us?" or, "What happened to our love for one another?" Even in a moment of slightly reminiscent tenderness, like this one, Carmine is angling for position, claiming the political high ground for our upcoming legal separation. The story will be how Charley changed, not how Charley and Carmine failed one another. I can feel myself shivering with renewed anger, my hands trembling to touch her throat again, and so I quickly turn on my heel and head for the door. I have the car keys in my pocket, the weight bouncing against my thigh. On the kitchen television is another commercial with a Polynesian woman washing her lustrous dark hair and gazing seductively up a flow of water into the camera. She is not my true love but she reminds me of my true love. The effect is shocking, as if I have walked into that fall of clear, cold water myself.

I find I have stopped dead in my tracks. This kitchen television is one of the new Sony plasma screens, the picture crisp as a still photograph, assembling and reassembling itself in front of my eyes millions of times and ways each second, and all that motion adds up in my pre-frontal cortex to this image of a smooth, polished, beautiful woman who has an air of unshakeable serenity, an assurance of eternal calm, and lustrous, supple waves of hair. When I turn to my wife she is standing in the middle of the kitchen with a piece of bagel in her hand, the remains of last week's spray tan beginning to fade, her eyes lighter than the rest of her skin, and a pale edge around her face from the bathing cap she wears when the tan sprayer lathers her with this fake color; she looks like a Malibu raccoon. Her housecoat, which she calls a morning robe, falls sheer and simple around her Victoria's Secret nightgown. Underneath this is her body, for which breast implants, liposuction, a tummy tuck, and various other grades of adjustments have failed to stave off the coming of middle age. She looks worse than old; she looks like a failed medical experiment, ghastly even at the beginning of her decay.

"I'll tell you what happened to us," I say. "Look at you. Look at you there. How much money did we spend on that carcass of yours?"

She blinks, mildly energized by the fact that I am still in the room, that I have not taken the occasion of her moment of nostalgia to flee. "What are you talking about?"

"Tell me how much it all adds up to. We had your breasts enlarged because they were the size of peach pits. Then we had them reduced because you got them too big the first time and you had a backache. We had the fat sucked out of your ass how many times? Once a year was it? We had your nose trimmed, even though your daddy gave you a nose job for your high school graduation. We got you so many high colonics I could have bought my own irrigation system. What else? The face lift? The attempt to make your ass look a little less like a landslide? How much does it all add up to?"

A color, a genuine, natural color, is rising up her throat and crossing her cheeks. "What kind of crap are you trying to start here, Charley?"

"I'm asking a simple question. How much money have we spent on your fucking ugliness? A hundred thousand? Two? I'm not even talking about the wardrobe, the jewelry, the shoes, none of that crap. I'm not even talking about the house. How much money have we flushed down the toilet of this disaster you call your body? How much?"

"You don't even want to go there," she says.

"Your teeth could use whitening," I say. "They're as yellow as summer squash."

"Fuck you," she says.

"Maybe another face lift, too," I say. "Then maybe your pubic hair would reach all the way to your chin and you could wear a beard."

"I don't believe my ears," she says. "This comedy from the man whose body shape approximates one of the Teletubbies. One of the fucking Teletubbies," and here she's speaking so forcefully that she spits a bit, a fleck of saliva on her chin. "The purple one, the gay one."

"Maybe we need to get radical," I continue, ignoring the spit, "maybe instead of liposuction we just need to ask Dr. Brewski to carve off big chunks of you at the waist."

"His name is not Brewski. It's Brynowski. And you know that perfectly well, you limpid mother-fucker, you cheese dick."

"You talk like the gutter-mouth you are," I say. "Like that slob of a mother of yours. Is she awake yet? You think she's listening?"

"You leave my mother out of this."

"Your mother is in this up to her pruny ass, Carmine. Your mother is in this up to her rheumy eyeballs."

"Listen to you with your big vocabulary."

"You'd prefer I stuck to the four letter words like you do, I guess. Get your mother out here right now, let's have a look at the two of you together. Mother and daughter, surgical miracles."

"Get out of here, Charley." She's trembling, moving to the sink, shoving the last chunk of bagel into the garbage disposal.

"Don't waste that bagel," I say, "not after you slathered a pound of butter and cream cheese and fruit gunk all over it. Think of the starving people in Rio de Janeiro. Think of the poor Africans. Don't waste that bagel, shove it down your throat."

Something comes whizzing past my head to fall behind me in the kitchen. There's no sound of breakage, it's not the china, Carmine is too canny for real destruction. Probably the sponge from the sink, the one she leaves there to wipe up spills between visits from the Serbian maid. Carmine is breathing like she wants to heave a fireball at me, as if she is truly the dragon that I sometimes accuse her of being. "You need to get out of this kitchen, right now," she says.

"Why? You want to pick up a knife and throw it at me next?"

"Get out, Charley. Before I do something I won't like."

I chuckle. "Let me just stand here and imagine what that might be."

"You no-good out-of-work son-of-a-bitch."

"Throw that in my face," I say, "who cares? You've been out of work for twenty-five years, right? But that's all right. You can sit here on your I-wish-I-could-get-a-butt-implant-so-I-could-look-like-J-Lo ass for twenty-five years, a quarter of a century, and that's okay; you can suck up every dime I earned into this rotting carcass you walk around in, and that's okay; but let me be out of work for a few stinking months and what do I hear?"

"A few stinking months? Charley, it's been three years."

"You're a liar. You want a divorce? Well let me tell you something, dearie sweetheart, mother of my children. I'll give you a divorce. I'll give you a whole pile of divorce like a big stinking dump-truck load of feces. Do you hear me? Do you?"

But I don't wait to find out. With an exit line like that one, it is irresistible to storm out of the house, and so I do, out the door next to the utility room, down the brick steps into the carport and trotting toward my car, lighter than I've felt in days.

***

In the Lifetime Channel movie version of Carmine's divorce, that scene will play a good deal differently. Carmine will be played by Virginia Madsen or Courteney Cox-Arquette, or, at worst, by Kirstie Alley, plump but voluptuous. I will be played by someone far less well-known, someone like Tom Arnold, but less recognizable. Carmine's dialogue will be rewritten to exclude the gutter language, and her appearance, standing in the kitchen, will be skillfully manipulated to invite more sympathy. I'll look pretty much like myself, I expect, a pudgy slob in expensive slacks and shoes, neatly shaven but not as well washed as I used to be, in the days when I still showered every morning before heading to my job at Arthur Andersen.

In the movie, just before our big scene in the kitchen, there'll be shots of Carmine reading our love letters from after college, when I was working as an administrative intern for a hospital in Milwaukee and she was finishing her senior year at Georgia Tech. She'll be reading the letter I wrote where I called her my tiny goddess of love, or something like that; she read that letter over and over again the year she was pregnant with Ann, because it had touched her so much, she said. Carmine/Virginia in the movie will read the letter with tears welling in her eyes, the classic movie shot: she finds the letter, recognizes it, and sinks slowly onto the bed, framed by a beautifully lit window; Carmine/Virginia will let the letter fall into her lap, sobs rising in her throat, wondering, so obviously, how she and I came to this pass, a more generous version of the question she asked me in the kitchen. In the Lifetime Channel movie, entitled Tender Is the Dawn, the divorce will be Carmine's divorce, and I will play the part of the villain. This is all right with me, since this is the role I've decided to take on myself, anyway.

Will she be afraid for her life? When we know a murder is coming, foreshadowing appears all around us, at least on TV. In real life, right now, Carmine is thinking about other things: how to find a divorce lawyer, how to convince me to move out of the house peaceably, how to explain to Ann and Frank that their parents are splitting up, how to make it look like it's not the fact that I'm out of work that's pissed her off, that she's not abandoning me so that she can take the house and the bank account for herself, while there's still something left.

She thinks there's something left, anyway. She has a rude awakening coming, next time she uses her ATM card.

The fact that I'm thinking about ways to kill her is hardly likely to be on her mind, because a thought like that is so out of character for me. It's the last thing Carmine will suspect. But in the movie, through clever use of foreshadowing, the audience will see it coming.

The Lifetime movie told from my point of view, my version of my divorce and crime spree, will be entitled Breakdown at Midnight. I will still play the part of the bad guy, but my character will get more screen-time, and I will be played by a handsome leading actor like Dean Cain or Antonio Sabato, Jr. I will play the part of the typical sadistic, uncaring, belligerent, philandering, extremely attractive husband. Maybe this will be one of the more daring movies and my lover, the one Carmine is certain I have, will actually be a man, or will even be her brother. Sympathy for my character will be established by my loss of a wildly respectable, lucrative job with Arthur Andersen, a company which turned out to be as crooked as its customers. I will be another orphan of the American Dream gone sour, and eventually I will give in to the so-called dark side of my nature when I strangle Carmine with the strap of her Prada bag, or stab her to death with a survivalist-quality hunting knife, or bludgeon her skull to a bloody pulp with a classic Tiffany lamp; this part of the script will have to wait for the real event to unfold since, though I've decided that tomorrow will be the day I kill her, I have yet to choose how.

Jim Grimsley is an award-winning novelist and playwright. He recently received the prestigious Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his previous novels are Kirith Kirin, a Lambda Literary Award winner; My Drowning, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award winner; Dream Boy, winner of the American Library Association Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Book Award for Literature; Comfort and Joy, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award; and Winter Birds, a PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award citation winner. He lives in Atlanta, where he is the Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emory University.

"What a great pleasure it always is to watch Jim Grimsley's estimable sensibility at work observing and deconstructing the foibles and follies of modern culture. In Forgiveness he exposes, with devastating wit, our cult of body and of fame. This is a brilliant and important novel."

—Robert Olen Butler

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